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More Employees Working on Healthier Lifestyle
 

By Kathy Gurchiek  10/24/2008
 

A majority of employees have taken steps within the past year to improve their health or have been doing so regularly for more than a year, according to a survey of workers at large organizations.

However, the demands of work, their personal life and overall stress are preventing nearly half (47 percent) of the 1,502 workers surveyed from leading a healthier lifestyle, according to the National Business Group on Health (NBGH).

NBGH, a nonprofit membership organization of more than 300 large employers, released findings of its survey of workers age 22 to 69 at organizations that employ 2,000 or more people. All respondents—95 percent of whom work full time—are covered by employer or union-sponsored health care plans. About 16 percent belong to a union.

They are more stressed today than two years ago, one-fourth of workers said, and 54 percent cite work and finances as the main reason, followed by the struggle to achieve a work/life balance. And that’s based on questions fielded in July 2008—four months before the financial crisis exploded, pointed out NBGH President Helen Darling during an Oct. 16, 2008, news conference in Washington, D.C.

Workers are switching on the TV (49 percent), talking to friends and family (44 percent), exercising and spending time on a hobby (both 41 percent) as ways to reduce stress.

“Exercise is a medicine. It’ll literally reduce the stress,” Darling said.

One method few use, though, is the employer-provided employee assistance program (EAP). While 58 percent of workers said they have access to an EAP, most say they never use it.

 “My impression is they’re not advertised and promoted nearly enough, and not promoted at key times,” Darling said. She thinks some might associate EAPs as “for people with serious problems” such as alcoholism.

But today’s EAPs are very different from their origins. They were first implemented “to provide an alternative to firing employees who could no longer function effectively due to problems with alcohol,” a Society for Human Resource Management white paper noted.

Darling suggested that employers promote EAPs by creating clever workplace signs that identify various topics EAPs can address—stress, holiday blues, financial worries, the nuances of domestic violence such as verbal abuse—while emphasizing their confidentiality.

Making the Connection

The connection between good health and financial savings is starting to click with workers, according to Darling.

In addition to the health benefits, “people are understanding the financial commitment between taking care of themselves and the financial cost,” she said.

Three-fourths (74 percent) are trying to adopt healthier lifestyles with the hope of making their health care costs more manageable in retirement, and more than half (54 percent) are saving money to cover health care costs in retirement.

Health-related activities employees are engaging in include:

  • Health-related screenings or exams—55 percent have done so regularly for more than a year; 23 percent started doing this within the past 12 months; 22 percent have not done so in the past 12 months.
  • Physical exam—54 percent have done so regularly for more than a year; 21 percent started doing this within the past 12 months; 25 percent have not done so in the past 12 months.
  • Tried improving overall health—53 percent have done so regularly for more than a year; 35 percent started doing this within the past 12 months; 13 percent have not done so in the past 12 months.
  • Researched a health condition—46 percent have done so regularly for more than a year; 28 percent started doing this within the past 12 months; 26 percent have not done so in the past 12 months.
  • Researched a doctor—33 percent have done so regularly for more than a year; 24 percent started doing this within the past 12 months; 43 percent have not done so in the past 12 months.
  • Completed an online health questionnaire—26 percent have done so regularly for more than a year; 22 percent started doing this within the past 12 months; 51 percent have not done so in the past 12 months.
  • Worked with a personal trainer, nutritionist or other professional—14 percent have done so regularly for more than a year; 11 percent started doing this within the past 12 months; 75 percent have not done so in the past 12 months.

Slightly more than half (54 percent) who said they would take advantage of health-related activities sponsored by their employer, union or health plan would get on-site screenings (59 percent), would use work-site fitness centers (55 percent), would enroll in a weight management program (53 percent), participate in a web-based wellness program (52 percent) and would see a work-site health care provider (52 percent).

That still leaves a goodly portion, though, who would not take advantage of health-related activities.

Those reasons, according to Darling, might include an aversion to using a fitness center frequented by peers or supervisors; injury or illness; use of on-site facilities prolonging the work day, or a lack of need.

Darling emphasized the importance of fast, one-click web access to employer web-based tools and structuring communication to reach different worker populations. Young workers—“the Facebook generation,” for example—want frequent communication, while others prefer monthly or quarterly communication, she said.

Communication efforts can make an impact on promoting health care activities.

Forty-three percent of workers are improving their overall health as a result of work communications, and slightly more than one-fourth are taking online health risk assessments or getting screenings, a flu shot or an exam.

“These are things we want people to do,” Darling said. “We’re moving the dial a little bit.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

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